The 73rd Berlin International Film Festival kicked off with a four-hour celebration of cinema – one that got increasingly political as the hours ticked by.
The German festival has always mixed politics with art, and that intersection could not be avoided in 2023 as Russia’s war on Ukraine rages on and the citizens of Iran are imprisoned and executed by an extremist government over human rights. In between, veteran indie director Rebecca Miller offered up her latest, the marital dramedy ‘She Came to Me’, reports Variety.
Berlin jury president Kristen Stewart spoke of the inherent political nature of film early on, addressing the crowd at the Berlinale Palast theatre at Thursday’s opening ceremony.
“There are a lot of oppressions against our physical selves. I’m a girl, but I’m probably the least marginal version of a woman I can be,” Stewart said.
Golshifteh Farahani, another juror, noted some women are not as fortunate.
“This regime lies a executes. The prisons of Iran are full of innocent people,” she said. “We need you to stand on the right side of history with the Iranian people. This regime will fall.”
Taking a stand of his own was Sean Penn, whose new documentary “Superpower” will premiere at Berlin’s first fully in-person event since 2020. The widely publicised documentary looks at the resilience of the Ukrainian people. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared via satellite to introduce Penn, stealing the show with rousing opening remarks.
“A logical question comes up: On which side should culture and art be?” asked Zelenskyy. “Can art be outside of politics? Should cinema be outside of politics? It’s an eternal question but today it is extremely pertinent.”
While thanking the Berlinale for “choosing” to ban creatives with ties to Russia, Zelenskyy ultimately concluded that “culture and cinema can be outside of politics, but not when it’s a policy of aggression, mass crimes, murder and terrorism. When it’s a policy of total war,” he said.
Calling on his skills as a former actor and those of a smart script writer, the Ukrainian president earned his standing ovation. He referenced the history of once-divided Berlin, cited from Wim Wenders’ 1987 film ‘Wings of Desire’, and called the festival “the showcase of the free world.”
Miller’s film started late thanks to a crush of remarks. While some trickled out, those that remained received the project warmly.
Peter Dinklage stars as a shy and blocked composer whose marriage to germaphobic therapist Anne Hathaway is sent into crisis after a chance meeting with tugboat captain Marisa Tomei. The whimsical project is seeking distribution out of the European Film Market.
A block away from the ceremony, two sets of protestors were out in force. Berlin taxi drivers upset by the festival’s partnership with Uber – a new sponsor for the 2023 fest – distributed leaflets encouraging the fest to add more taxi ranks and work with the local taxi associations and trade unions.
Fleets of white Tesla cars and black BMWs, some emblazoned with the Uber logo, delivered the stars to the red carpet.
Meanwhile, cinema workers from Yorck Kino, a big player in the arthouse sector, held banners demanding an end to temporary contracts for the bulk of the chain’s workforce.
Apart from two protestors from an unknown org staging a sit-in on the red carpet towards the tail end of the arrivals, most signs of strife were all but absent at the Berlinale Palast, where the disco ball spun above throngs of guests and delegates – a remarkably different scene from the eerily quiet 2022 edition of the fest, where even most German delegates stayed home due to strict Covid restrictions.
This time, leading lights of the local film industry included Maren Ade, Detlev Buck, Christian Petzold, Volker Schloendorff, Matthias SchweighAfer, Katja von Garnier, Veronica Ferres, Tom Tykwer and Heike Makatsch.
Juror Farahani, who closed out the remarks, likened the spirit of filmmaking to a revolution.
“The wall of dictatorship is a thick wall – the revolution in South Africa took 800 days, ours has been just five months. This wall is one of oppression, attacking human rights. We need all of you. We need Germany, France, Europe. We need you to stand on the right side and to acknowledge it. Call it a revolution,” she said.